Jeff Walker on ‘Natural Philanthropy’

Jeff Walker’s clear insights into what moves people and how to turn passion into action make him one of the most enlightened philanthropists I know.

After a successful career as a leader in private equity, Jeff has turned his full attention in the last few years to his philanthropic passions. I spoke to Jeff recently about fundraising, philanthropy and the challenge of collaboration in the nonprofit sector.  Excerpts:

Jennifer:   You use a phrase called “natural fundraising.”  What is that?

Jeff:  It’s a method that you can use to connect with someone that feels right and natural.  It flows. It’s about listening to others and truly trying to partner with them in ways that ties what you’re passionate about with what they’re passionate about. Also, in natural fundraising, you see yourself as a node in the network of connections.  If you can use yourself as a connective point to many other individuals you become a natural point of energy for them to link to.

“That natural connection many times
turns into something that’s leveraged
and exponential in its results.”

Jennifer:  Can you talk more about being that connective node?

Jeff:  I just had a meeting last week with an individual I haven’t talked to in a while and it turns out he’s retired, wants to go back to school, and is involved in philanthropy in various ways.  We started talking about what I was doing and what he was doing.  He got interested in some of the nonprofits I am working with so I acted as a natural connector to them.  If you don’t have personal walls up when you interact with someone you can more easily evaluate how a person should be connected to someone else or to a cause.  That natural connection many times turns into something that’s leveraged and exponential in its results. It’s that energy-giving introduction that allows more to happen.  It’s that openness with your network that makes people want to come back to you.

Jennifer:  What do you mean by energy giving introductions?

Jeff:  It’s a move toward being egoless. You try to be low ego in that connection. You make the introduction and then let what happens happen.  You don’t have to stay up to speed on every aspect of it.  It does not take much energy to make the introduction but the potential for that introduction to change a non-profit or other person’s life can be very high.  On boards I am on I am usually seen as a connector – someone who can open up new linkages/relationships.  Some of these connections have been transformational for the entities involved.

Jennifer:  So many organizations have a difficult time recruiting and retaining good fundraisers.  Why?

Jeff:  In my experience, many organizations – and their Boards in particular – blame their development team for not achieving the goals that they’ve set – the amount of funds raised or number of donors who have given are typical measures.   But it’s a mistake to blame the development team and not to hold the Executive Director and Board of Directors accountable. In the nonprofit world, it needs to be a partnership between the Board, the executive director and the development team to develop relationships with people who can add value to the non-profit and who can be passionate about the mission.  These passionate people many times become donors, door openers and idea generators.  It’s a joint mission.  So instead of holding fundraisers accountable for the number of calls they make or for following the right pyramid of giving, they should be evaluated on how effectively they are building partnerships and relationships with others. You cannot just use the standard sales model from the for-profit world and try to translate it into the nonprofit world – without the inciting of passion in potential supporters it doesn’t create more and better relationships.

Jennifer:  Is that why it’s so hard to recruit fundraisers.  Because it’s seen as a sales job?

Jeff:  Yes.  I think it’s often seen as a job that has set goals of funds raised, potential donors called, pitches made and incentives are set to achieve those goals.  People will track percent of funds raised as compared to the prior year and many other measures but no one details out and discusses how to get the potential donor to be passionate about the cause.  How can we connect him/her to their natural passions?  As a board member, I’ve seen tons of reports like that, it’s like a war.  A very for-profit focus.  That is antithetical in my mind to a long-term successful development function. The advantage a nonprofit has over a for-profit is that they can connect to those passions that stay there for a long period of time.  That gets deeper and deeper and deeper.  Once the flame of passion has been lit the non-profit gains a supportive partner rather than just a donor.

“It’s like having an event and you sell
them a table and move on.
There’s no real relationship there.”

Jennifer:  A lot of people think fundraising is just about money.

Jeff:   If you start with the money, it’s a quick transaction.  It’s like having an event and you sell them a table and move on.   There’s no real relationship there.  To me, the bigger money comes when you go deeper into a relationship.  Once you have a relationship it is easier to ask for something in a straightforward manner and get a more clear response.  What I, personally, would rather focus on is how you connect people to a particular need of the organization. At Millennium Promise, for example, we connect people around questions like: Can you help me figure out how to finance agriculture? Can you help me with an energy strategy?  Can you help me with a marketing campaign?  We’ve connected people up all along the way and when they see what they specifically can do for a non-profit then both the non-profit and the donor have enhanced experiences.  It will be clear in each conversation that money is needed to support an idea/ effort and with the right relationships then the money flows into the non-profit and the donor and non-profit both come up with what’s needed to accomplish the plans you’ve jointly developed. It’s then a very easy conversation.  How are you going to help me?  How are we going to get done what we both want to do together?  Let’s brainstorm should be something the teachers start teaching.

Jennifer:  How does it translate if it’s not a major donor?   How do you do that with the masses?

Jeff:  There’s no one answer yet. We have to use social networking and other tools to identify and reinforce the connection between the donor and the outcome.  There is a story that’s heard by them – told by you – that gets them emotionally connected to the cause.   And they stay emotionally connected to that story and it moves them when they remember it, not just at the time of the year-end appeal.

Jennifer:  There are 1.8 million nonprofits in the U.S. alone, all with compelling stories, most with compelling strategies, all with need. One of the challenges with social networking is that it’s hard to make that connection if it’s not face-to-face.   How do you crack that with social networking tools?

Jeff:  Again, we don’t have the answer yet. But look at what Chris Hughes and others did in the Obama campaign that connected the voters into a group where each person felt like he or she was going to have an impact.  How can we use that same set of tools and techniques for other causes?  We are all playing with this and really interesting things are being tested.

Jennifer: What worked well, obviously, in the Obama strategy is that there was a timed goal.  Even if it’s an ongoing campaign, I think there’s power in creating urgency around timed goals.  Then they also have responsibility not just for writing a check, but also for organizing around these goals.  It’s different from transactional fundraising.

Jeff:  Yes.  How do you build your tribe or your group so that you can work with it in partnership, rather than in a transactional way? If you just make it transactional, then it ends quickly and you move on to the next transaction. I was talking to a professor who focuses on the use of social networks at Harvard Business School and he said that all the sites that really work are the ones that continually build community. It turns out that many donors connect initially online, but their experience turns into a physical relationship at some point.

Jennifer:  So it is face to face?

Jeff:   It becomes face to face eventually.  We’re all trying to explore this: Meetup, Crowdrise, Jumo and other sites.

“I use the example of Al Gore holding a concert for
global warming.  I don’t see a result. I don’t
see a person who is changed. It requires more than
just people getting together.”

Jennifer:   Talk more about the story and how to use it effectively.

Jeff:  There needs to be an image of results. A bed net will stop someone from dying.  I can image that in my mind.  When we speak to people about the music consortium I am co-chair of, I should be able to get a potential partner see the child who hasn’t had music in school and then show them what he or she looks like with music. You have to simplify that end result, that thing you’re doing that’s going to transform people.  If you can’t simplify that, then you have to think about it some more.  I use the example of Al Gore holding a concert for global warming.  I don’t see a result.  In my mind, I don’t see a person who is changed. Impact requires more than just people getting together, the story helps crystallize the point.

Jennifer:  Do you think there are a lot of people in organizations who don’t know how to truly navigate that partnership piece?

Jeff:  I sure do.  It’s a huge problem.  Take academia.  In academia, to be tenured, many professors have to focus on enhancing their own image and reputation.  Few people get tenure because they worked well with others or they helped bring in ideas from others into the academic community.  I think it’s just wrong.  Professors in universities should be nodes in the network of ideas facilitating their transmission.  There is a lot of resistance out there in organizations and silo like actions.  My advice is if there’s resistance to partnering move on.  You’ll find another organization to work with that is more interesting over long-term.

Jennifer:    So how do you truly empower the Board?

Jeff:  I am experimenting with Vanessa Kirsch at New Profit on this. She has amazing people on the Board who all want to go deeper and be a part of a team.  If you want to go deeper you have to connect them in some specific way. So with each one of the board members, find out what’s special that they’re going to do that connects them and that helps the organization. It’s OK to assign something specific to Board members.  Hold them accountable.  They are not in the nonprofit world only to be fiduciaries.  They are there to be partners in achieving the goals of the organization.

Jennifer:  Why would there ever be resistance around the partnership idea from an organization?  Is it fear of losing control?

Jeff:   We’ve all been trained in for-profit board strategies.  Your role is to be a fiduciary on a for-profit board of directors.  You are supposed to be skeptical of the CEO and set measures and standards and hold him or her accountable.  I’m not saying don’t do that.  I’m just saying that you have to do that in partnership with others and hold yourself accountable for those standards, which is not the old world.  Also, the old world of nonprofits is the Chairman or Executive Director brought you in and so you were there to serve them.  That’s not true either.  You are there to be a partner.  If they aren’t treating you like that, get off the Board.

Jennifer:  Can you teach partnership-building?

Jeff:  You have to experience it.  You have to experience the success of collaboration so that you trust that it works and you will want to do it again. Take a subset of the Board and try it.  Take your Executive Committee and ask: how are we going to truly function as partners with each one you?   They each have something unique to add and are dying to help.  If they become co-creative partners, then the committees that they’re in charge of will start acting like that too.  Pick a couple of people from your board and go deep with them.

“If you can pull together 4-5 organizations
that are working on a common cause,
then you can really accomplish something.”

Jennifer:  What 2-3 major pieces of advice would you give people in this space?

Jeff:  First, you don’t have to do this all by yourself.  That means bringing your staff in as partners.  Your Board in as partners.  Your donors in as partners. This also means reaching out beyond your specific entity itself and identifying other organizations that can be pulled into a partnership with you.  There are too many times when people stay within their organizations and try to defend why it’s more important than others.  If you can pull together 4-5 organizations that are working on a common cause, then you can really accomplish something.  That takes managed ego.  Second, build relationships with those people with common passions and relax and open your network.  That’s generative.  That’s leverageable.  Many of us are too fearful to open our relationships.  The more I do it, the more effective I am and the happier I am.  Third, be open to innovation and different ideas. Open yourself up continually to expose yourself to things that aren’t necessarily right on mission. Challenge yourself.  Many ideas are from places and experiences you would not have ever been exposed to without opening yourself up to a broad network.

Jennifer:  Thanks so much, Jeff. Your ideas are truly inspired and inspiring.

Jeffrey C. Walker is an Executive in Residence at the Harvard Business School focusing on the areas of Social Enterprises and Active Philanthropy. He is also a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School where he taught a seminar on “Active Value Creation-applying private equity tools to the not for profit world.”   He is Chairman of Millennium Promise, a non-profit that incubates ideas to eliminate extreme poverty in developing countries.  He is also ex-Chairman and co-founder of Npower, an organization that provides technology training to inner city kids, connects them with jobs, and provides back office technology to over 500 nonprofits.  He is co-Chair of the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium (70 organizations all focused on bringing music programs back to kids in the U.S.).  Mr. Walker was Chairman and is currently Vice Chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Monticello) and for ten years and sat on the board of the Big Apple Circus.  He is also on the Berklee College of Music, New Profit, Morgan Library, University of Virginia Undergraduate Business School, and Lincoln Center Film Society boards and sits on the Visiting Committee at the Harvard Business School. Mr. Walker is ex-Chairman and CEO of CCMP Capital (CCMP).  CCMP is the $12 billion successor to JPMorgan Partners (JPMP), JPMorgan Chase & Co’s global private equity group with operations in North America, Europe and Asia.  Mr. Walker is a Certified Public Accountant and a Certified Management Accountant.  He graduated with a B.S. from the University of Virginia and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

Recently, Jeff authored a blog for the Harvard Business Review series “How Leadership Might Look in the Future,” entitled: Ray Chambers: the Model Collaborative Leader. Read the full post at:


    • says

      Jeff Walker’s insights (interview responses)on Exponential Fundraising seems to me to be the “natural” order of having a dialogue around an initiative that matters, that has impact, that is inspiring and points to social change. This can be for providing educational access, reducing poverty, providing art and music in inner city classrooms, or providing a safe harbor for abused children. Jeff’s comments and beliefs seem to me to in part, based on his beliefs and values; his genuine care and concern for societal and global needs. What would be wonderful for so many non-profits is a way to “find” (perhaps through a clearing house) the “Jeffs of the world” based on their own articulation of specific interests, passions and desires to serve a greater good — for board assignments and for the future heads of NGO’s, and domestic non-profit organizations in all fields.
      Thank you, Jeff for reminding me of the essence of fundraising. The long term and future successes of so many non-profit organizations come from a different mindset – one that isn’t focused solely on financial transactions but rather on building relationships over time, about shared mutual interests and efforts where the impact can be “seen”, “felt,” and “heard.”
      Thank you.
      Joan M. Neice
      VP and Chief Development Officer
      Thunderbird School of Global Management


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